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Ballard is widely esteemed, not merely by The Usual Suspects, but by numerous folk who, as I like to put it, are entitled to an opinion. Not a few describe him as one of the best writers in English of the twentieth century. Thus, my own view of his works as only modestly good is an outlier. But it is not the only one: the respected science-fiction, and sf author himself, Algis Budrys wrote in Galaxy magazine of December, 1966 that:
A story by J. G. Ballard, as you know, calls for people who don’t think. One begins with characters who regard the physical universe as a mysterious and arbitrary place, and who would not dream of trying to understand its actual laws. Furthermore, to be the protagonist of a J. G. Ballard novel, or anything more than a very minor character therein, you must have cut yourself off from the entire body of scientific education. In this way, when the world disaster — be it wind or water — comes upon you, you are under absolutely no obligation to do anything about it but sit and worship it. Even…further, some force has acted to remove from the face of the world all the people who might impose good sense or rational behavior on you, so that the disaster proceeds unchecked and unopposed except by the almost inevitable thumb-rule engineer type who for his individual comfort builds a huge pyramid (without huge footings) to resist high winds, or trains a herd of alligators and renegade divers to help him out in dealing with deep water.
This precondition is at the root of every important J. G. Ballard creation and is so fundamental to it that it does not need to be put in words. Being buried as it is, it both does not call attention to itself and permits the author’s characters to produce the most amazing self-destructive reactions while making reasonably intelligent and somewhat intellectual mouth-noises.
(The full essay, which includes some sharp criticism of Thomas Disch as well, can be found here.)
Having just completed The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard, I must say that I find it hard to disagree with anything Budrys said. I came away with the sense that virtually every character, major or minor, in Ballard’s stories is either crazy, stupid, or (most often) both, which is simply a much less elegant way of saying what Budrys so neatly said. Even granted that a certain amount of surrealistic exaggeration must be allowed for, I find it hard to extract any meaning from the cavortings of folk who all seem to need strait jackets.
The redeeming factors in Ballard are these. First, Ballard writes well. His prose is eloquently descriptive at painting word pictures of environments and people. Second, on occasion he excels himself (as with, for example, his early short story “The Concentration City”); those occasional gems can balance off a lot of the psycho-sludge in so many of his other works. And third, his tales do generally set out and embellish some deep criticism of the modern world and the people in it, which criticism is often some variant on the theme that today’s world warps the human psyche in unpleasant ways. Those points, however, are somewhat diminished by his what I often call Wielding The Great Hammer of Obviousness to pound them into the reader. OK, sir, we get it; enough.
Whether some of his novels can be classed “speculative fiction” is an open question. Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise are the most notable of such works; others include The Day of Creation, Rushing to Paradise, and the four quasi-mystery novels Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People, and Kingdom Come. All of those have greater or lesser aspects of surrealism, but whether they fit the definition of speculative fiction—whether the “laws” of normal human behavior (as opposed to those of aberrant human behavior in the world of the tale) are different enough to be anything but satirical exaggerations of reality, is a question readers must answer for themselves. For me, they are not, and are not listed or discussed here.
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There are numerous articles about Ballard on the web, but also two dedicated web sites:
There are seemingly countless books about Ballard and his works. Here are a representative few:
J. G. Ballard: The First Twenty Years, edited by J. Goddard & D. Pringle
J. G. Ballard by P. Brigg
Out Of The Night And Into The Dream by G. Stephenson
The Angle Between Two Walls by R. Luckhurst
J. G. Ballard by M. Delville
J. G. Ballard by A. Gasiorek
J. G. Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination: Spectacular Authorship by Jeannette Baxter
J. G. Ballard: Visions And Revisions edited by Jeannette Baxter & Rowland Wymer
J. G. Ballard by D. Harlan Wilson
Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From A Parallel Universe by S. Sellars
This page was last modified on Sunday, 20 December 2020, at 4:46 pm Pacific Time.